When I moved into a new house a few weeks ago, my books, as was natural, moved with me. Strong, perspiring men shovelled them into packing-cases, and staggered with them to the van, cursing Caxton as they went. On arrival at this end, they staggered with them into the room selected for my library, heaved off the lids of the cases, and awaited orders. The immediate need was for an emptier room. Together we hurried the books into the new white shelves which awaited them, the order in which they stood being of no matter so long as they were off the floor. Armful after armful was hastily stacked, the only pause being when (in the curious way in which these things happen) my own name suddenly caught the eye of the foreman. “Did you write this one, sir?” he asked. I admitted it. “H’m,” he said noncommittally. He glanced along the names of every armful after that, and appeared a little surprised at the number of books which I hadn’t written. An easy-going profession, evidently.
So we got the books up at last, and there they are still. I told myself that when a wet afternoon came along I would arrange them properly. When the wet afternoon came, I told myself that I would arrange them one of these fine mornings. As they are now, I have to look along every shelf in the search for the book which I want. To come to Keats is no guarantee that we are on the road to Shelley. Shelley, if he did not drop out on the way, is probably next to How to Be a Golfer Though Middle-aged.
Having written as far as this, I had to get up and see where Shelley really was. It is worse than I thought. He is between Geometrical Optics and Studies in New Zealand Scenery. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I find myself to be entertaining unawares, sits beside Anarchy or Order, which was apparently “sent in the hope that you will become a member of the Duty and Discipline Movement”—a vain hope, it would seem, for I have not yet paid my subscription. What I Found Out, by an English Governess, shares a corner with The Recreations of a Country Parson; they are followed by Villette and Baedeker’s Switzerland. Something will have to be done about it. But I am wondering what is to be done. If I gave you the impression that my books were precisely arranged in their old shelves, I misled you. They were arranged in the order known as “all anyhow.” Possibly they were a little less “anyhow” than they are now, in that the volumes of any particular work were at least together, but that is all that can be claimed for them. For years I put off the business of tidying them up, just as I am putting it off now. It is not laziness; it is simply that I don’t know how to begin.
Let us suppose that we decide to have all the poetry together. It sounds reasonable. But then Byron is eleven inches high (my tallest poet), and Beattie (my shortest) is just over four inches. How foolish they will look standing side by side. Perhaps you don’t know Beattie, but I assure you that he was a poet. He wrote those majestic lines:—
The shepherd-swain of whom I mention made
On Scotia’s mountains fed his little flock;
The sickle, scythe or plough he never swayed—
An honest heart was almost all his stock.
Of course, one would hardly expect a shepherd to sway a plough in the ordinary way, but Beattie was quite right to remind us that Edwin didn’t either. Edwin was the name of the shepherd- swain. “And yet poor Edwin was no vulgar boy,” we are told a little further on in a line that should live. Well, having satisfied you that Beattie was really a poet, I can now return to my argument that an eleven-inch Byron cannot stand next to a four-inch Beattie, and be followed by an eight-inch Cowper, without making the shelf look silly. Yet how can I discard Beattie—Beattie who wrote:—
“And now the downy cheek and deepened voice Gave dignity to Edwin’s blooming prime.”
You see the difficulty. If you arrange your books according to their contents you are sure to get an untidy shelf. If you arrange your books according to their size and colour you get an effective wall, but the poetically inclined visitor may lose sight of Beattie altogether. Before, then, we decide what to do about it, we must ask ourselves that very awkward question, “Why do we have books on our shelves at all?” It is a most embarrassing question to answer.
Of course, you think that the proper answer (in your own case) is an indignant protest that you bought them in order to read them, and that yon put them on your shelves in order that you could refer to them when necessary. A little reflection will show you what a stupid answer that is. If you only want to read them, why are some of them bound in morocco and half-calf and other expensive coverings? Why did you buy a first edition when a hundredth edition was so much cheaper? Why have you got half a dozen copies of The Rubaiyat? What is the particular value of this other book that you treasure it so carefully? Why, the fact that its pages are uncut. If you cut the pages and read it, the value would go.
So, then, your library is not just for reference. You know as well as I do that it furnishes your room; that it furnishes it more effectively than does paint or mahogany or china. Of course, it is nice to have the books there, so that one can refer to them when one wishes. One may be writing an article on sea-bathing, for instance, and have come to the sentence which begins: “In the well-remembered words of Coleridge, perhaps almost too familiar to be quoted”—and then one may have to look them up. On these occasions a library is not only ornamental but useful. But do not let us be ashamed that we find it ornamental. Indeed, the more I survey it, the more I feel that my library is sufficiently ornamental as it stands. Any reassembling of the books might spoil the colour-scheme. Baedeker’s Switzerland and Villette are both in red, a colour which is neatly caught up again, after an interlude in blue, by a volume of Browning and Jevons’ Elementary Logic. We had a woman here only yesterday who said, “How pretty your books look,” and I am inclined to think that that is good enough. There is a careless rapture about them which I should lose if I started to arrange them methodically.
But perhaps I might risk this to the extent of getting all their heads the same way up. Yes, on one of these fine days (or wet nights) I shall take my library seriously in hand. There are still one or two books which are the wrong way round. I shall put them the right way round.
Milne, A. A.. “My library.” 1920. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Nov 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/milne/my_library/>.
I love to lose myself in other men's minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.
In my garden I spend my days; in my library I spend my nights. My interests are divided between my geraniums and my books. With the flower I am in the present; with the book I am in the past.
There are few books which go with midnight, solitude, and a candle.
I'm always afraid of being caught reading, lest I should pass for being studious or affected, and therefore instead of making a display of books, I always try to hide them.
It may be said that the books of which I have been speaking attain to the highest literary excellence by favour of simplicity and unconsciousness.